NASA NorCal racer Tommy Lo raced in the 25 Hours of Thunderhill for the first time in 2003, the inaugural year the race expanded from 12 to 25 hours. From that moment on, Lo has been enticed by the allure of the 25 Hours of Thunderhill, the longest closed course endurance race in North America.
“There were five of us who ran it, and then ever since I’ve been hooked. Driving at night on the hill, and then sharing a bowl of chili with friends at 3:00 in the morning, there’s nothing like it,” Lo said. “So ever since then, I’ve run with other teams, I’ve put together my own team. And it’s always that element of luck that’s been missing. And we always do well. Maybe halfway through something breaks, somebody hit us, a driver falls ill, whatever.”
Lo has raced the 25 on and off throughout the years that followed and in 2019 he hatched a plan to race with two different teams in two different classes in two different kinds of cars. The only commonality between the two teams is that each had won its class at the 2018 25 Hours of Thunderhill. One had won its class three years in a row.
Lo got in touch with Ron Gayman of RAMotorsports, which has three consecutive E3 wins to its credit. By the time Lo contacted RAMotorsports, the driver roster had been filled out.
“At one point he had come to me and said, hey if you need drivers, obviously I want to be on a team that has a chance to win,” Gayman said. “I said, ‘Well, I am full, but I’ll just keep you on the list.’”
As luck would have it, one of RAMotorsports’ drivers had a conflict, and Lo was added to the roster. By then, Lo had already signed up to drive for Team MooreWood Creative, which won E1 in 2018 and was campaigning its E46 in E2 for 2019. Team principal Larry Moore worked with Lo and Gayman to help set up a schedule that worked for both teams.
“He mentioned that early on, that he wanted to “iron man” it and do two teams, and it concerned us a little bit at first because we’re defending E1 champions,” Moore said. “We had a schedule we wanted to stick to, but we also knew the other team owner, so we were able to work the schedule to get Tommy into our team early. We wanted to get him in there and get his stints done with our team so he could just focus on the other team. I know there was one instance where he was in our car and it was pushing up close to when he was supposed to go jump in the car and I think he may have missed that first stint, and got put into the second stint.”
The last time Lo ran the 25 was back in 2016. That wasn’t a good year for him. The team had put the car together last minute, but even when they did take the green flag, the car wasn’t really ready. The foam in the fuel cell started clogging the fuel system. The hood flew open and smashed the windshield. The team finished, but it left a bad, and lasting, impression on Lo. He didn’t race the 25 in 2017 or 2018. The 2019 event was his first time back in two years.
“So yeah, I was so hurt by this event, but I finally recovered in 2019 where I thought, maybe I’ll try it again,” Lo said. “Because my whole reason was, I won regionally, I won the regional championship, I won that national level. I’d done some very low-level pro racing. The only thing left is that stupid $50 6-foot trophy that I really want to get. Right? And every year you go up there and you see teams that are wåell put together, but they’re not absolutely the fastest, but they win. And I was so envious that this year I said, ‘Let’s try it just one more time.’ So I decided to run with two teams and hopefully, I was hoping to buy into a podium.”
His choices of teams seemed pretty sound. A Spec Miata racer himself, Lo knew Gayman and that his cars were well prepped. Larry Moore’s team won last year, so his chances looked good there, too. Even before he had secured two seats, he had begun to train for the event. It’s one thing to talk about driving for two different teams in two different cars in a 25-hour race, but it’s another thing to execute it, and his goal was to win, so he talked to some friends who compete in triathlons to find out how best to prepare for racing on two teams at the 25 Hours of Thunderhill, an undertaking that is as much mental as it is physical.
“What did they do to speed up recovery? And so they gave me some hints on supplements that’s keeping electrolytes in your system,” Lo said. “How do you recover fast with some of those gel packs? And then what’s the regimen they do every few hours? What do you drink? What do you eat? How do you keep your stomach from getting upset? So we developed this regimen where I tried it out working out first, where you do two workouts with maybe four or five hours in between, just to try those systems out and tune it in just to make sure my body doesn’t get upset.
“So it turned out that Red Bull, electrolytes and simple carbs, was the ticket. It was that cycle. So we brought that to the track and I had an RV where I prepared all the food, all the drinks,” he continued. “Basically it has to be in the rhythm. And so the coordination was difficult in that, not only do you have one seat insert, I have two seat inserts that I have to keep track of. Second, it got really, really complicated when the rain came, because now it’s not predictable when you’re going to stop. Nobody has data on how long each driver takes to empty that tank.”
Lo had the second stint in the MooreWood car. The race started in heavy rain, but when it was Lo’s turn to drive, the Doppler apps showed that it was going to clear up for a while, so they swapped out the rain tires for slicks. That made the car difficult to drive at first, but as the rains subsided, the lap times began dropping and the Moorewood team had taken over second place in E2. Then, as Lo put his hand up and out the window on the back straight to signal that he was pitting, another car came up inside his right rear with one off his front fender. Three wide.
Lo felt the impact on the right rear of the car. The contact shoved Lo into the other car to his left and spun it. Lo also partially spun, and ended up 20 feet from pit entrance with broken suspension bits. Both the other cars involved in the incident also were E2 cars, but MooreWood dropped to last in class.
“It was kind of a bad situation, but we survived it, got the car back together and sent him back out,” Moore said. “It broke both tie rods on the steering and one of the control arms, so we went back out with a rough alignment and luckily the alignment was OK. However, the accident caused the steering angle to be off, which screwed with the computer’s steering angle sensor and wouldn’t allow the traction control to work properly for a while, which wasn’t helpful in the weather.”
The team sent Lo out for another stint in the MooreWood car and the team got up to sixth. Lo drove another stint in the BMW E46 sedan, but the competition in E2 was too great to overcome, and sixth place was where they finished the next day at noon.
When Lo finished in the MooreWood car, he sprinted over to the RA Motorsports pit space. The cars were worlds apart in terms of the driving experience, Lo noted. The MooreWood BMW was fast, torquey and had loads of aerodynamically enhanced grip in the corners. Despite the longer wheelbase and power steering and all the electronic aids, it was far more physical to drive than the Miata, which was more an analog experience, and less punishing to drive.
He drove for the RAMotorsports team for the rest of the race. When he jumped in shortly after midnight, the No. 40 RAMotorsport car was leading the E3S class by four laps. The team just needed to keep doing what it was doing and things might turn their way.
It began raining again about 2 a.m., and cars started going off track and bringing mud back onto the track, which caused more cars to go off and bring on even more mud. At 5 a.m. Sunday morning, RAMotorsports had the lead by two laps. Then the No. 40 car went off track, collecting so much mud on its undercarriage that the car was vibrating badly.
The vibration shook loose a ground wire and the car started blowing the engine fuse under the dash, which stranded the car and required it be towed in. That happened twice. By 6 a.m., Team A+ Racing had taken over the E3S lead and put the 40 car four laps down. By the race end, as a result of the blown fuses and tow-ins, the 40 car was 22 laps down from A+ Racing in first.
The RAMotorsports sister car, the No. 35 was running on three cylinders, but running nonetheless and it limped home to a third-place finish, crossing the finish line with the 40 car just behind it. After some 12 hours of racing with two different teams, Lo didn’t get the finish he was looking for, but that likely will just motivate him to come back again next year.
“I think there’s a lot of people that get intimidated because of just the magnitude of this event. When it really comes down to it, besides how many zeros behind the price of the car, racers, pit crew, they get together, it’s just this common bond,. It’s the same at all levels. It’s fantastic, right?” Lo said. “It doesn’t matter if you have the slowest car on the track or the fastest car in the track, right? Everybody’s not blinking. There’s nothing like it, there’s absolutely nothing like it and I think NASA did everybody a great favor by allowing some of us grassroots guys to experience around-the-clock racing, because where else are you going to do this? Nobody can afford a Daytona 24 hour ride, right?”
Right. See you next year.